Slavery is a sensitive topic that can be difficult to talk about. But that awful chapter in our history is part of who we are as Americans. We need to reckon with that history honestly. That’s why I asked Harvey Bakari, Manager of African American Initiatives, what he considered some of the most common misconceptions he has encountered. Here are his top five.
#1 It was illegal to teach slaves to read and write
In 1740, South Carolina passed a law against teaching slaves to write in the wake of the Stono Rebellion, during which dozens of blacks and whites alike were killed.
While fears of slave uprisings were widespread, Virginia did little to prohibit teaching slaves to read or write. The education of slaves was considered a master’s prerogative, so the government didn’t interfere.
That’s not the same as saying it was common. It wasn’t. Williamsburg’s Bray School, where African American children received some education during the 1760s, was an exception. But Virginia’s first law prohibiting the education of slaves came in 1819, long after the end of the colonial era.
#2 Slaves were usually dressed in rags
For all of Colonial Williamsburg’s interpreters, at some point the clothes are new. But many visitors are surprised to see the portrayal of enslaved persons in clothes that actually look pretty nice. The expectation stems from a couple of assumptions: first, that slavery was equivalent to squalor, and that it looked the same in town as it would on a rural plantation.
“It’s not because we’re trying to make slavery look benign,” says Harvey. Like anyone else, an enslaved person’s clothing varied greatly depending on whether they worked in a house or a field, in the city or the country, and for a rich master or a relatively poor one.
Williamsburg, as Virginia’s capital, was the place where the power brokers of colonial society gathered. If their slaves were dressed in rags, it would reflect poorly on them. Their reputation would likely suffer.
During the abolitionist movement, especially from the 1830s, slaves were frequently pictured in ragged clothing and the most desperate conditions. In contrast to Virginia’s gentry, their goal was to portray slavery at its very worst.
Those images are still powerful today. But acknowledging that not all slaves wore rags does not change the fact that slavery was an oppressive, inhumane institution.
#3 Slavery was all about cotton
Many visitors to Great Hopes Plantation, Colonial Williamsburg’s 18th-century farm, wonder where the cotton is. After all, that’s the crop we think of first when it comes to American slavery.
That’s probably because it’s easy to think of slavery as an evil institution that remained relatively stable. But that’s a misconception. It actually varied greatly over time and in different regions (and not just between North and South).
Long before cotton, tobacco was Virginia’s major cash crop. While tobacco was critical to the growth of slavery in Virginia, it looked different from the 19th-century Deep South version.
Most plantations held a relatively modest number of enslaved people compared to the massive cotton plantations. And as visitors to the James River plantations can attest, the houses were hardly comparable to the antebellum mansions found in Mississippi and Alabama.
It’s a different context, and that reminds us that the progress of slavery’s expansion was far from inevitable. As the country grew and evolved, there were many opportunities to choose a different path.
#4 Slaves were actually better off in America
Were Africans were better off being slaves in America than free in Africa? Some people think so, in part perhaps because the West’s sense of superiority is so closely tied to modern notions of technology and an ever-higher standard of living.
Of course, in the 18th century, any technological divide was a lot narrower. For Harvey, though, this misconception is more deeply rooted in the cartoonish views of Africa that have been presented through popular culture.
From the belief in cannibals to the civilizing mission that was considered the “white man’s burden,” there has been a relentless emphasis on the idea of the “primitive.”
“It’s like going to Europe and finding the most primitive people and saying that they’re representative of the whole continent,” says Harvey.
But however bizarre, scary, dangerous, and savage a picture is painted of African societies, does it really make sense to suggest that enslavement is the better option?
#5 Human trafficking is the same as slavery
In the past few years it has become something of a commonplace to link the modern scourge of human trafficking with the lifetime bondage that was legal in America until the Civil War. But Harvey is more than a little uneasy equating the two.
American slavery was, after all, legal. Human trafficking, which covers a whole range of criminal activity from kidnapping to debt peonage, is criminal activity taking place in the shadows.
The difference matters. It speaks to the very definition of slavery—after all, how many millions more slaves would we count for the 18th century if we included all types of unfree labor?
It also speaks to the difference between history, the reasoned evaluation of the past, and advocacy, the attempt to right wrongs by shining a light on awful practices.
The people who owned slaves during the colonial period were doctors and lawyers, future presidents and religious people, wealthy families, and farmers. And it was out in the open. It was acceptable.
“And that,” Harvey says, “makes the story of American slavery more difficult to tell than the story of some criminal who lives in the dark and will not have monuments built for them and professorships named after them.”
So that’s Harvey’s list. What’s on yours? Do you have some story you’ve always wondered about?